Back in the mid-90’s I sent a script to a Manhattan theatre famous for championing new plays. I was grateful for their reply when it eventually came. To get a personalized, considered response to your work is a rare thing for an unknown playwright. An extremely nice assistant to the Literary Manager passed along their apologies, but, as she put it, the family relationships I depicted were “too revved up and earnest” for them. Apparently they had never met my family, or any other group of East Coast Irish Catholics bound by blood or marriage. This was my first initiation into the fact that “earnestness” was a dirty word among the dramaturgical elite, (though if there be a more earnestly vapid word than “dramaturgy”, I can’t seem to think of it.)
Since before left was “Left” there has been a strong association between the arts and liberalism, with an accompanying emphasis on intellect over small-minded sentiment. Unfortunately, it seems to me that in our obsession with seeming smart, both liberals and artists suffer from an unreasonable predilection for cynicism. Good smart people continually convince themselves-- or worse, allow themselves to be convinced by other good smart people-- that intelligence somehow equals knowing that the world is shit and only getting shittier. It’s a tempting proposition, no doubt. Mark Twain springs to mind: “The only thing worse than a young pessimist is an old optimist.” But Twain earned his cynicism, and could hardly have achieved what he had as story-teller if it had been the beginning and end of his world view. Can you think of any dilemma more earnest that Huck Finn trying to help his friend Jim find freedom? Indeed, it’s only when Tom Sawyer happens along and begins mucking up Huck’s plans for Jim’s escape that we get a real taste of cynical liberalism at its Clintonesque best. “I should HOPE we can find a way that's a little more complicated than THAT, Huck Finn." How many strong progressive agendas have been scuttled in similar ways by well-meaning, high-minded Liberals who know better than to try solving a problem by going straight at it?
The fact is, sometimes things are NOT more complicated than breaking someone else’s chains, or speaking up loud and strong in the face of cynical war mongering, or maintaining that a crime is a crime regardless of what corporate office the criminal holds. In hedging on these issues, in leaping headlong for the political center in spite of what they know to be the right thing to do, our liberal leaders have cunningly steered themselves right to the brink of irrelevance (all the while vilifying the earnest efforts of people like Ralph Nader.) I can only hope that the artists of this country will do better. And I have reason to hope. Good artists are inherently less partisan than politicians, and-- god bless ‘em—inherently more earnest, despite their worst instincts.
When the phone rang on the morning of September 11, 2001 I was in my Queens apartment on the toilet. How’s that for earnest? My wife was calling from the Times Square skyscraper she worked in, telling me to turn on the TV: apparently one of the twin towers was burning. Rumor had it that a plane crashed into it, an incredible accident given the blue crystal skies that day. I watched as the South Tower exploded with the impact of the second airliner, pants still down around my ankles.
There was nothing not earnest about that day. Waiting on the East side of the Queensboro bridge for my wife to walk off Manhattan (the same bridge that inspired Paul Simon to write “Feelin’ Groovey”), I watched as tens of thousands marched to safety, more quietly and compliantly than I ever hope to see New Yorkers moving again. It was enough to give you the shivers. Days later we attended an impromptu candlelight gathering outside our neighborhood fire station, which had lost two men. (Other nearby companies lost as many as twenty.) People of all colors and creeds crowded around the open station doors, where the fire men just sort of stood and stared blankly back at us for an awkward spell of silence. Then someone began singing “God Bless America”, others joined in but few knew all the words. I’m proud to tell you it was this Lefty show bizzer who knew the whole verse and was loud enough to carry the crowd through to the end with a lump in my throat and a smile on my face, and a profound feeling of gratitude that I was witnessing and playing part in this strange and (yes, goddammit!) earnest moment.
Chekhov says “Art tells the truth”. Picasso says, “Art is a lie that points at the truth”. But either way, the benchmark remains the truth.